When I provide insight into game development, instead of talking about specific games, the conversation revolves around the building blocks of games we call features. Through analyzing the atomic elements of games and how they can be combined and work together, we hope to learn generic lessons that can be applied to all games.
"It is worth noting that there is no feature in development titled "fun" or "engagement" - that is an emergent property of features working together in harmony."
- Stephen Calender, Game Engineering Team Lead
I have avoided analysis of the value of features. Games have such diversity that the same feature could be critical in one scenario and completely ineffective in another. Furthermore, features work together to form an experience as part of a cohesive whole. Evaluating a game element in isolation, dissected from the context of the rest of the game is devoid of meaning. However, it got me thinking that there are some things that universally add value to a project.
Performance How smoothly the machinery of you game runs can supplement or destroy the value of your product. You have about 1/10th of a second to react to user input before your game feels broken. If your product hitches, chugs, or slows down it can cause players to abandon your game. Consumers have zero tolerance for anything defective - even if it just occurs in one spot it seeds the thought that the rest of the game has problems. On the opposite end of the spectrum, when performance is high all the animations are silky smooth and interactions feel responsive.
Reactivity and “Organic Elements” Human Computer Interaction is an entire field of study, but here is a crash course. We are not accustomed to things popping in and out of existence. Most things in nature do not stand still, and anything that moves draws the eye. Your experience will be more pleasant and captivating as you add more natural and organic behaviors. This is why digital books have page turn animations and why games laud realistic physics. Even features like idle animations and an animated user interface are going to increase engagement.
Camera Work Often overlooked, camera manipulation can dramatically improve an experience. The camera is perhaps our greatest tool to create immersion - the feeling that you are connected to the game world (just look at how excited we are for VR). Camera work can make as big of a difference as a game with and without sound. If you can master techniques used in film, you can manufacture drama, tension, power, awe, and in general connect on a deeper level with your characters and the game world. Cinematography is one of the reasons we still talk about a movie made in 1941. Unlike some other elements that are all or nothing, you can incrementally add and refine camera effects.
Introduction Video and Cut Scenes Video production isn’t cheap, however you can usually edit things so an introduction video can also be used for commercials and marketing materials. I could write an entire article on how to start your game, but rarely is a tutorial done well enough to draw the player in and get them excited. You want to capture the essence of your experience, something that shows - not tells - what they can aspire to achieve, and what possibilities are available in the game space. A video can give context and provide goals for the experience in the same way that a title sequence sets the tone for a television show. If you are new to visual design you should pick up Understanding Comics. Having a high-quality video to kick off your experience will inflate the perception of your entire product. If you show high detail characters, settings, and objects in a video people will mentally map the high quality onto the objects in the game. Consider that Transformers first started as a toy, then Hasbro made a television series to sell them; or that Pokémon started as a pair of video games and has 19 movies and television series that started in 1997 and is still in production.
Story Never underestimate the power of story. Before we had a written language we had oral traditions and bards. Epics like The Odyssey we told, memorized, and retold for generations before being written down. Even with all of our modern advancements people still read books and attend plays. In addition, text is often the easiest part of a game to change. Writing for games is different than traditional writing, but in a few keystrokes you can write histories for places in your virtual word, create legends, establish traditions, devise love interests, author secrets, and hint at larger parts of the world the player has yet to explore. Often players are willing to overlook a game’s flaws if they are rewarded with more of the story.
Just like with books and movies, gamers have lists of “best games”. We try to define what is a “perfect game”, which I would contest is a game where you lose value by adding or removing any feature. The one video game that has bothered me while writing this article is Tetris, because it is considered perfect by many and it definitely does not have camera work, story, or video (if you don’t count the rocket launching). As much as I would like to know where the pieces are coming from, why they need to be stacked, and what magic makes lines disappear; it would have no effect on how I played the game. I stand by my list, just remember that there are exceptions to every rule.